In 2004, Ashley Faulkner looked into the camera and said of George W. Bush, “He’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe, that I’m OK.”
It was powerful. It was an emotional, affirmative argument to vote for George W. Bush. Ashley’s line, and the photo of Bush hugging her during a campaign visit to Ohio, was the Bush-Cheney campaign’s emotional closing argument.
The message: “Vote for George Bush, he’ll keep you safe, he cares about you personally.”
Flash forward four years to the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, and it’s clear that John McCain and Sarah Palin had a different Ashley-centric emotional closing argument in mind.
This Ashley, McCain-Palin campaign worker Ashley Todd, has admitted to a lying scheme designed to stir up racial hatred. The obvious goal — create an emotional backlash against black people and against Barack Obama to influence the vote. That’s the McCain close. The McCain-Palin campaign pushed it. Nobama.
The message: “Be scared of Barack Obama’s supporters. Go vote against him.”
(It should be noted, this is the kind of thing that goes beyond campaign messaging. This sort of thing leads to race-based physical attacks.)
The contrast from four years ago is striking. Four years ago, the emotional fulcrum of the race swung between Bush v. Not Bush. Bush won, in part because he could make an affirmative, emotional closing argument. This year, Obama v. Nobama is bringing out the worst, most base human instincts from the McCain campaign, and an emotional, Ashley-based closing argument that voters need to fear “that one.”
There is a third Ashley, one whose story was also memorably told in Pennsylvania. Obama’s Ashley.
At its core, Obama’s Ashley story is one both of organizing and of the strength discovered when Americans recognize in each other a common humanity. Not only are these two defining cornerstones of how Barack Obama has conducted his campaign, the Ashley story Obama tells is an argument for his election.
As a palate-cleanser from the disgraced Ashley Todd, the final part of Barack Obama’s More Perfect Union speech on race, March 18, 2008, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.
Three Ashleys. They tell the tale.